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Europe Can’t Afford Vacillation on Ukraine

Ukrainians have paid a price in blood for an EU future.

By , a doctoral student in history at the University of Pennsylvania.
A Ukrainian flag hangs on a sculpture of the euro
A Ukrainian flag hangs on a sculpture of the euro
A Ukrainian flag hangs on a sculpture of the euro in Frankfurt, Germany, on May 23. Andre Pain/AFP via Getty Images

Eight years, seven months, and two days after the rupture of widespread nonviolent protests in support of the European Union in Kyiv, Ukraine—now known internationally as Euromaidan and locally as the “Revolution of Dignity”—Ukraine was granted candidate status to the EU. Ukrainians turned out in their thousands to celebrate this historic moment, even in the middle of war. But it’s been a long and costly road for Ukraine—and one often stifled by the EU itself.

Ukraine has sought entry to the EU for nearly 10 years. Now, it is ready to be part of Europe. During Euromaidan, around 100 Ukrainian civilians lost their lives at the hands of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s Berkut security forces. A further 14,000 people, including at least 3,400 civilians, died due to conflict in Russian-occupied Luhansk and Donetsk between 2014 and just before the latest episode of Russian brutality began this February. Ukraine was not ready to join the EU back during Euromaidan, according to the bloc. What has changed? What has changed since thousands of Ukrainians engaged in a civilian-led revolution to democratically elect a government and a president who would respect their wishes to anchor Ukraine’s future with European-style democracy rather than Russian-influenced cronyism?

The EU’s attitude toward Ukraine has been Janus-like, looking in two directions at once. It simultaneously welcomes Ukraine as European and treats Ukraine as a junior partner, not quite ready to be considered a peer. That whiplash-inducing shift in attitudes persists, even as European politicians make pilgrimages to Kyiv to show their devotion to the Ukrainian cause.

Eight years, seven months, and two days after the rupture of widespread nonviolent protests in support of the European Union in Kyiv, Ukraine—now known internationally as Euromaidan and locally as the “Revolution of Dignity”—Ukraine was granted candidate status to the EU. Ukrainians turned out in their thousands to celebrate this historic moment, even in the middle of war. But it’s been a long and costly road for Ukraine—and one often stifled by the EU itself.

Ukraine has sought entry to the EU for nearly 10 years. Now, it is ready to be part of Europe. During Euromaidan, around 100 Ukrainian civilians lost their lives at the hands of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s Berkut security forces. A further 14,000 people, including at least 3,400 civilians, died due to conflict in Russian-occupied Luhansk and Donetsk between 2014 and just before the latest episode of Russian brutality began this February. Ukraine was not ready to join the EU back during Euromaidan, according to the bloc. What has changed? What has changed since thousands of Ukrainians engaged in a civilian-led revolution to democratically elect a government and a president who would respect their wishes to anchor Ukraine’s future with European-style democracy rather than Russian-influenced cronyism?

The EU’s attitude toward Ukraine has been Janus-like, looking in two directions at once. It simultaneously welcomes Ukraine as European and treats Ukraine as a junior partner, not quite ready to be considered a peer. That whiplash-inducing shift in attitudes persists, even as European politicians make pilgrimages to Kyiv to show their devotion to the Ukrainian cause.

Messaging from European leadership in the two weeks leading up to the vote for Ukraine’s candidate status in late June supported the idea that Ukraine’s sacrifices validate its accession into Europe. On June 17, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted, “Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with us the European dream.” Why did Ukrainians have to die in huge numbers to show they have “the European perspective”? One hundred innocent civilians died for the European perspective in 2013 and 2014, yet Ukraine was not considered ready then.

In 2014, Ukrainesigned its EU Association Agreement, which came into force in 2017. Since then, it has been working toward implementing the necessary changes to its economy and judicial systems to better integrate into the EU. Despite this, Ukraine’s path toward the EU was an open question until months into Russia’s recent invasion. Even now, with candidate status, it is reasonable for Ukrainians to both rejoice and question just what this means for them as they engage in a life-or-death struggle against a merciless invader.

What can the EU do for Ukraine now? Earlier in June, Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defense Anna Malyar argued that Ukraine had only 10 percent of the military assistance it needed to continue its defense. In May, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz faced criticism about Germany’s see-sawing stance on increasing its military support to Ukraine. The latest visit by Scholz, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Italy’s Mario Draghi to Kyiv culminated in a slew of positive, hopeful messages about Ukrainian sovereignty and no negotiated peace.

However, until the weaponry arrives and Europe makes good on its promise to decrease its dependency on Russian oil and gas, Ukraine has to juxtapose its new status with the fact that European receipts are paying for the Russian weaponry used to brutalize them. The latest EU sanctions and embargoes on Russian crude oil won’t go into effect until December, and on Russian petroleum products until February 2023. Ukraine must survive Russia’s onslaught for at least another five months before the restrictions kick in.

Russia’s invasion in February highlighted and exacerbated Ukraine’s complicated relationship with the EU and Western Europe. As Russian rockets and artillery began to rain down on Ukrainian cities and villages, we began to see an outpouring of European support for Ukraine. Yellow and blue—the colors of both the EU and Ukraine—became ubiquitous across Western Europe. Yet, a few weeks before the Russian invasion, Macron emphasized the need to implement the Minsk accords, which would undermine Ukrainian territorial sovereignty.

In mid-March, after hearing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s plea for support from the German parliament, Scholz wanted to focus on diplomacy rather than financing support for Ukraine. It has been in largely thanks to American and Baltic financial support and the open borders of Ukraine’s Eastern European EU neighbors—Poland and Hungary—that Ukraine has withstood the dual catastrophes of invasion and a migration crisis. Western Europe kept failing, and this failure cannot be made up for with a patronizing hand extended toward a country still seen as an inferior.

Instead, EU candidate status should be a sign of an improved and mutually respectful relationship between the bloc and Ukraine. This requires the EU to face up to its contradictory behavior toward Ukraine since 2014 and provide full-throated and fully funded support for the country. It requires the EU to make a concerted effort to wean itself off Russian oil and gas. Moreover, Ukraine needs the EU to be fully committed to the immense rebuilding project caused by the Russian onslaught. This will come at a cost—estimates of the damage done by the war are around $4.5 billion a week —but one that Europe should be ready to assume.

The most important thing, however, is that Europe must be determined in its efforts to hold Russia responsible for its aggression and atrocities in Ukraine. This war has shown the remarkable frailty and fealty of Western European institutions and commitments. As EU leaders have tripped over themselves while attempting to appease Putin one week and support Ukraine the next, Eastern European states are watching the example set by Ukraine. Ukraine has had to pay the highest price to join the EU—over 4,000 Ukrainian civilians will never return home. Thousands of Ukrainians are entering the rest of Europe without their spouses, children, friends, and communities.

Moldova and Georgia also applied for EU candidacy status with Ukraine, with Moldova reaching candidacy and Georgia gaining ‘European perspective’ status. Two of the three former Soviet states attempting to join the EU have experienced Russian military revanchism in the last 15 years.As Ukrainians celebrate their European status worldwide—because millions of them have been displaced as war refugees—European analysts are discussing the bleak times ahead for the Ukrainian war effort as Russia digs into the eastern Ukrainian front. Europe now must contend with the reality that a European Ukraine means a European Mariupol, Kharkiv, Sievierodonetsk.

The EU’s attitude and behavior over the next months of this war will define its relationship with Ukraine and how it is viewed by other states that Russia shadows. Candidate status is an important step, but it’s just one step on the path of European integration. On the one hand, Ukraine, according to the EU’s membership requirements, must adopt and integrate EU rules and regulations into its laws. That’s a tricky proposition in the middle of war, and the EU needs to be prepared to cut Kyiv slack over its progress. It is time for the EU, particularly its leading powers Germany and France, to show that it is worthy of the terrible price Kyiv has paid.

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon is a doctoral student in history at the University of Pennsylvania focusing on Black experiences and ideas of race, ethnicity, and nationality policy in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet space. She has written on these topics in various publications, including the Moscow Times, Krytyka (Ukraine), and the Kennan Institute’s Russia File blog. Her digital curriculum vitae can be viewed at www.kstjulianvarnon.com.

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